We All Swim Bare Naked, Miss

By David

The Hangaroa River winds around the foothills of Mount Whakapunaki for forty miles before it joins the Ruakaturi River and begins the last portion of its journey to the Pacific Ocean. Where the Hangaroa and Ruakaturi rivers join is the tiny village of Te Reinga. That is where I grew up. That is where I trained to swim.

I remember my first swim there like it was yesterday. I was nine years old. On a hot East Coast afternoon, shortly after we arrived in Te Reinga, my mother decided our school’s thirty students should have a swimming lesson. She had been told the local children used the Hapua. That’s the Maori word for a pool of water or lagoon. In this case the Te Reinga hapua was a particularly tranquil section of the Hangaroa River about half a mile downstream from the school. As we walked along the road to the pool a year eight girl was clearly concerned to bring my mother up to speed on the customs associated with swimming in the Te Reinga hapua. “We all swim bare naked miss” she explained. And sure enough, not only was I the only pakeha (European) swimming, I was also the only swimmer modestly wearing a swim suit.

That suit was actually pretty important. My mother had contacted Farmers, the big department store in Auckland, and had a very snappy red, white and blue Speedo number sent to our home. The suit lasted for years; way beyond any suit you’d buy theses days. Mind you, it was seldom subjected to the chemical concoctions that characterize most swimming pools. I suspect the hapua’s clear water had a lot to do with the suit’s longevity.

Training in a river may seem a bit primitive but I must tell you the scenic splendor of the hapua was pretty special. No swimmer I know of swims in a more attractive setting. Along either side of the river were tall shady poplar trees and grass cropped short by wandering sheep and goats. In summer time the water was deep and crystal clear. The river’s edge, on one side, had a small sandy beach and a short wall of greywacke rock, ideal for practicing racing starts and turns. The other side was not as convenient. Deep river mud made the turns on that side a chore. Each turn involved standing up turning around and pushing off through a foot of clinging mud. The first three strokes were spent clearing the mud off feet and toes. It is a pity that skill is not required at the Olympic Games. I’d have done really well. The muddy bank did have one major attraction. It made for the very best hydroslide. We had to laboriously cart our own water to the top but the speed and twists and turns on the way down were first class. The river was 33 meters wide in summer; and 38 meters during the winter rainy season.

I enjoyed training there. The early mornings were a bit lonely – no regulation three life guards at Te Reinga, even when the river was in flood. During the summer afternoons, there was usually plenty of company. My mates, who thought all the training was the sign of a deranged mind, would frequently challenge me to race across the river. I always changed the challenge to across and back where the deranged mind had a major endurance advantage.

I didn’t have a coach but my mother bought two books that were a fine alternative – “The Science of Swimming” by Doc Counsilman and “Run to the Top” by Arthur Lydiard. I still have both books with my pencil notes covering their pages as I sought to improve on the works of the legendary Doc Counsilman and convert Lydiard’s Olympic running genius to swimming in the hapua. Eventually I came up with a program that involved swimming about 45 kilometers on a good week and 25 kilometers on bad weeks. The 25 kilometer weeks were usually in winter when cold and river silt made swimming conditions difficult. I should add that I was 16 or 17 years old by the time I got to those distances. That experience probably explains why I have little sympathy for swimmers who complain to me now that the well cared for water at Henderson’s West Wave Pool in Auckland is too hot or too cold. It certainly looks a step up from the Hapua on a cold winter’s morning.

Training in the Hapua was never likely to result in an Olympic or even a national championship. I did however leave my river to compete. My first Hawke’s Bay Poverty Bay Championship was held in the old Clive Pool. In those days Clive Pool was open air and filled with unheated artesian water. I recall hearing HBPB swimming stars like Todd, Palmer and Meade complaining about the conditions and the cold. That seemed strange. To me Clive Pool was another Sydney International Aquatic Center or Fort Lauderdale Hall of Fame. I competed in Auckland and Wellington Championships and won titles in both. I made the finals of the New South Wales Age Group Championships in the old North Sydney Pool; another character pool famous for its stunning location.

There is possibly a touch of rose colored glasses in this next thought, but win or lose, I never regretted returning to the Hapua and swimming widths through its clear drinkable water. It refreshed body and soul. Could I have swum faster if I’d been coached in Wellington by Tony Keenan or in Auckland by Lincoln Hurring? Probably. But whatever the result I would never have traded the Hapua. On a cold winter’s morning with the river in flood or on a hot summer’s afternoon my Hapua was home, a beautiful place to swim.